A step up

Michaella Janse van Vuuren's latest pieces take her technical proficiencies to new heights – and onto the fashion runway.

Michaella Janse van Vuuren, an electrical engineer who has pioneered the use of 3D printing in South Africa, can now add “fashion designer” to her list of titles. Janse van Vuuren has been a skilled and passionate advocate of the technology, which she has used to create intricate artworks and design pieces such as her Chrysanthemum Centrepiece that was voted the Most Beautiful Object in South Africa at Design Indaba Expo 2009.

“South Africa is potentially at the forefront of 3D printing but a lot still needs to happen to cement this position,” she says. If the country does have a contribution to make to the explosion in rapid prototyping, it will be largely thanks to her. 

After months of collaborating, conceptualising and experimenting, Janse van Vuuren recently unveiled a new application of her 3D printing design talents on the fashion ramps of New York. She exhibited a new collection of shoes, jewellery and clothing at the “Inspire” fashion show at 3D Printshow, the foremost event showcasing the latest developments in the industry.

The Johannesburg-based designer’s latest pieces take her technical proficiencies to new heights, demonstrating complex engineering and painstaking attention to detail. Bracelets, platform shoes and an intricate corset show off the range of applications now possible with the technological breakthroughs of the new Objet500 Connex3 printer. The device, from manufacturer Stratasys, is the first comprehensive system allowing multiple different materials and colours to be seamlessly integrated into one product.

This meant that Janse van Vuuren could mix varying rigidities of plastic in one item, enabling her to create a shoe with a firm sole and a flexible upper. She chose detailed designs that could not have been otherwise created, such as the serpent-shaped heel of her platform shoes.

"Not only is this technology able to replace traditional methods of manufacturing, but it enables one to manufacture in a completely new way," she notes.

The ability to include different material properties and beautiful jewel-like colours in a single print run is absolutely ground-breaking.

Her “stained-glass effect” corset, with its panels of clear, magenta and black, perfectly demonstrates the combination of different colours in once piece. Using specialised software, the corset can be custom-made to fit the wearer using body-scan technology.

Like so many of her other designs, the collection was inspired by complex natural forms. "I started the collection by looking at nature, which is extremely adept at combining different materials," she says. "The jelly-like beauty of underwater creatures also made a contribution."

The final pieces were the result of a collaboration. After countless hours of design on each piece Janse van Vuuren sent the digital files to Stratasys, which printed them in-house and then sent them to Norwegian software company Uformia for customisation. The process spanned three continents.

"What I loved about the project was that the communication was facilitated by my drawings – that art is used to fluidly communicate ideas between the different disciplines of design, materials engineering and software creation. Great stuff happens when art and engineering meet."